While the Ontario Divisional Court overturned the ‘Student Choice Initiative’ that allowed students to opt out of some student fees yesterday, the damage the Ontario government’s directive created for CFRC is far from over.
The Student Choice Initiative, issued by the Ford government in early 2019, allowed students at colleges and universities across the province to opt out of “non-essential fees” such as “fees related to student associations” and other “ancillary fees.” As a result, CFRC Radio – the Queen’s University radio station, which is also the longest running campus radio station in the world, and the second-oldest radio station in the country – took a huge hit when student fees were collected in the fall of 2019.
And while Station Manager Dinah Jansen championed the court’s decision, she was quick to point out that the decision doesn’t mean CFRC is out of hot water.
“Well, we are certainly very pleased to see that student organizers were able to seek and gain some justice for student groups across the province through the Divisional Court, and we’re delighted by the outcome,” Jansen said.
“As far as what that means for the station? It’s still a little bit precarious. We still lost $50,000 out of a $200,000 budget as a result of the Student Choice Initiative.”
Prior to the Student Choice Initiative, students at Queen’s automatically paid a fee to CFRC annually. Jansen explained that, when student fees were collected this year, 26.3 per cent of undergraduate students opted out of the fee, and 31 per cent of graduate students opted out of the fee, meaning a total of about $50,000 in revenue lost. That nominal fee of $7.50, which is one of the cheapest campus radio fees in the province, made up a huge part of CFRC’s annual operating budget.
The station’s fee will go to referendum in January of 2020, where it will be decided whether or not that fee will once again become mandatory. But until then – and even when that decision is made – it is tough to say what the future holds for the community radio station that is as much a part of Kingston as it is of Queen’s University.
“We are currently in a situation where we’re not sure how we’re going to staff the station in the coming year, because we still don’t know what our revenues are going to be next year,” Jansen said, noting that not knowing whether or not the station will be able to collect a fee in the fall of 2020 makes it very difficult to plan ahead.
“In the instance where we don’t collect a student fee, we’re potentially facing closure. And that would be our closure ahead of our 100th anniversary,” said Jansen, who has volunteered with CFRC since 2005, and served as the Station Manager since 2017.
“Even with the outcome of yesterday’s court decision, the station is still very much in peril.”
Jansen pointed out the service CFRC provides, not only to Queen’s and the student population in Kingston, but to the Kingston community as a whole. The station is often a place where new musicians are able to get their music out locally, and it also serves as a place where those in Kingston and beyond discover new music and different genres they might otherwise never hear, Jansen express. And in terms of their spoken word programming, a lot of social justice and grassroots organizing occurs over CFRC airwaves.
“A lot of various issues of relevance to the community as a whole that get talked about on our station that may not necessarily find as much coverage elsewhere,” Jansen said.
“I understand some folks like to hear the Top 40 on repeat, but a lot of other folks don’t, and we provide that alternative programming so people get exposed to local musicians, or musicians and genres they may never have really considered listening to before – they hear it here first.”
Because of the Student Choice Initiative and its subsequent impact on the financial stability of CFRC, the station has opted to continue its annual fundraising campaign until the end of 2019. The campaign has a goal of raising $20,000, but, considering the $50,000 hit the station has already taken, those with CFRC are really hoping to exceed that goal. As of Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, the campaign has raised about $12,000.
“Any little bit that the community members are able to offer to the station to continue supporting their community radio station is certainly most welcome. And at this point, we really, really need it,” Jansen expressed.
The Ontario Divisional Court overturned the Student Choice Initiative, citing a number of reasons (the entire ruling can be found here via the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario). Among those reasons, the decision cited “… the distinction between essential and non-essential fees seems arbitrary if the actual objective behind the SCI and directives is to lower the financial burden on students,” noting that “athletic fees, which are roughly ten times greater than student association fees, are deemed ‘essential’ but student association fees are not: no principled basis for this distinction was offered in the record before us or in argument.”
The decision also stated that “University and college student associations are private not-for-profit corporations. Ontario does not fund these associations directly or indirectly. There is no statutory authority authorizing Cabinet or the Minister to interfere with the internal affairs of these student associations.”
“Universities are private, autonomous, self-governing institutions. They are ‘publicly assisted’ but not publicly owned or operated,” the decision reads. “For more than 100 years, Ontario has had a legislated policy of non-interference in university affairs… There is no statutory authority authorizing Cabinet or the Minister to interfere in the internal affairs of universities generally, on in the relations between universities and student associations specifically.”
And while Jansen said she more than agrees with the ruling, it’s not about to make CFRC’s $50,000 loss suddenly return. Now, her focus in terms of the station is primarily on the referendum in January, which has been organized by Queen’s Alma Mater Society.
“If the station does not pass its mandatory fee at referendum in January… I haven’t had a chance to sit down with the board to crunch those numbers, but we could face a wind down and eventual closure by 2021,” she said.
“We’re not going down without a fight, and we’ll keep plunging forward and working hard, at the same time, we’ll continue to put out our programming for the benefit of the entire community for as long as we can.” For more information on CFRC Radio, including how to support their 2019 annual fundraising campaign, click here.